“Seinfeld” makes great lesson for law students


Fans of “Seinfeld” may have learned a thing or two about the legal system and didn’t even know it. Indeed, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law is even using past episodes to explore those legal connections.

So maybe it’s not actually a show about nothing …

Students can choose from 10 virtual weekly lessons this summer on Zoom in the free course “Seinfeld And The Law.” 

To show it firmly has tongue in cheek, it notes that the lessons come from the “new and definitely unaccredited Yada Yada Law School.”

Professors and legal scholars will address topics on which they are experts, with each lecture tied to an episode of “Seinfeld.”

The school said it evolved this way: “The course and school were created by Gregory Shill, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law who is also known as the Art Vandelay Dean & Kenny Rogers Roasters Foundation Chair in Business Law at Yada Yada Law School. He hopes to bring educational content and laughs to those who are self-isolating or quarantining during the coronavirus pandemic.”

“I wanted the lectures to be available and digestible to anybody, but to really model the first-year law student’s curriculum,” Shill said. 

Classes are free, but Shill is asking people to donate to Legal Services of New York City and its COVID-19 relief efforts. 

For example of how this works, Professor Sara Bronin, who teaches property law at UConn, features the well-known episode about a parking space controversy. But if this were to go to court, who would win? Does the space belong to George Costanza or Jerry’s friend, Mike? 

The answer is actually quite simple if you can think like a lawyer, according to Bronin. In terms of ownership, it all comes down to whether a reasonable person would see a car stopped just past an empty parking space and assume the driver had claimed the spot, she said.

“The episode teaches us that if we don’t all agree to respect norms for ownership claims, society can descend into chaos,” Bronin said. “It’s almost like the ‘Seinfeld’ creators knew about the legal issues they were raising, at least more than most people assume they did.”

In her online lecture, Bronin addresses how a lawyer would break this down and decide who is right. She says the first thing a lawyer would do is look at precedents and in this particular case there are two examples: Pierson v. Post (1805) and Ghen v. Rich (1881).  

Pierson v. Post is about a man (Post) who chased and pursued a fox, but another man killed it and carried it away (Pierson). Because of hunting customs, the court ruled in favor of Post. 

Ghen was a fisherman who killed a whale in Massachusetts Bay.  A man named Ellis found the whale several days later, but rather than following the harpooning custom and taking the whale to town to give it to the fisherman and collect a finder’s fee, Ellis sold the whale to Rich. The court ruled in favor of Ghen.  

“If you think of an empty parking space like a wild animal, if you make that analogy, and then you go forward and say well okay in both of these wild animal cases custom is key, then the real question you have to ask is what is the custom in parking?” 

“If we think of the parking space as a wild animal like the two previous rulings, then we can determine what the custom is,” Bronin said.

“Is the custom that if you see somebody who’s in front, backing in and you assume that person is entitled to the space or is the custom first-come, first-serve you get your nose in and you get the parking space?”.  In this case custom favors George. 

“I think if we’re thinking like a lawyer and looking at property law and looking at the wild animal cases – which favored custom – we would say George is probably the winner here." 

A second connection that Bronin’s lecture makes between “Seinfeld” and property is addressed in the episode: ‘The Marine Biologist’.

In that, George and Jerry debate if a whale is a fish or a mammal. George says a whale is a fish and Jerry says it’s a mammal. According to the recent case of Makah Indian tribe v. Quileute Indian Tribe, the word “fish” was interpreted to include whales and seals. Meaning, George wins again. 

“It really talks about lawyers responsible to understand and be able to argue about the meaning of words,” Bronin said. “There is a lot of different context here: practice, a dictionary, translation all that could have given meaning to the word fish.” 

Other Yada Yada Law School classes will explore criminal law, contracts, torts, evidence and other fundamental legal topics with faculty from law schools around the country.

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